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A re-examination of the projected subtropical precipitation decline

An Author Correction to this article was published on 13 August 2018


A large-scale precipitation decline in the subtropics is a widely accepted projection of future climate change1,2,3, but its causes and implications are uncertain. Two mechanisms are commonly used to explain the large-scale subtropical precipitation decline: an amplification of moisture export due to the increase in moisture4 and a poleward shift of subtropical subsidence associated with the poleward expansion of the Hadley cell5,6. In an idealized experiment with abrupt CO2 increase, we find that the subtropical precipitation decline forms primarily in the fast adjustment to CO2 forcing during which neither of the two proposed mechanisms exists. Permitting the increase in moisture and the Hadley cell expansion does not substantially change the characteristics of the large-scale subtropical precipitation decline. This precipitation change should be interpreted as a response to the land–sea warming contrast, the direct radiative forcing of CO2 and, in certain regions, the pattern of SST changes. Moreover, the subtropical precipitation decline is projected predominately over oceans. Over subtropical land regions, the precipitation decline is muted or even reversed by the land–sea warming contrast.

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Figure 1: Multi-model ensemble mean changes in the abrupt4×CO2 simulation.
Figure 2: Time evolution of multi-model ensemble mean changes in the global mean moisture, boundary of the Hadley cell and zonal mean precipitation from the abrupt4×CO2 simulation.
Figure 3: Multi-model ensemble mean precipitation changes.
Figure 4: Changes in the moisture budget terms for the robust SPD regions from the 1pctCO2, AMIP and aqua_CO2 simulations.

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We thank I. Held, T. Knutson, J. Scheff and L. Polvani for useful discussions. Thanks also go to T. Delworth and K. van der Wiel for their internal review at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modeling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. J.H. is supported by the Visiting Scientist Program at the department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, Princeton University.

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J.H. designed the research and analysed the simulations. J.H. and B.J.S. discussed the results. J.H. led the writing with the assistance of B.J.S.

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Correspondence to Jie He.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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He, J., Soden, B. A re-examination of the projected subtropical precipitation decline. Nature Clim Change 7, 53–57 (2017).

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